Cape Breton Landfall Argument

If modern scholars generally favour a northern landfall for Cabot's 1497 voyage, there has been strong support for a landfall on Cape Breton Island. Before 1949, when Newfoundland joined Canada, Canadian scholars used cartographic evidence to argue this conclusion, and the theory has never disappeared.

The central exhibit was, and remains, the La Cosa map of about 1500. Found in 1832, it is the earliest map to represent any part of the North American continent. It is a large planisphere of the entire known world, in colour on ox hide, with the western, transatlantic part depicted on a larger scale than the Old World. It was made by Juan de la Cosa, a skilled Basque navigator who sailed with Columbus, and shows the discoveries of both Columbus and Cabot. It is probable that Cabot's chart of his voyage (later lost) was passed by the Spanish ambassador in London to the king in Spain, and it is also possible that La Cosa received information about Cabot's third voyage by the same channel (Nunn, 1943).

The La Cosa Map

Both Biggar (1911) and Ganong (1929; in Ganong 1964) were convinced of the importance of La Cosa; they were supported by Williamson and Skelton (Williamson, 1962), who considered it 'the only map which unambiguously illustrates John Cabot's voyage of 1497 and — with less certainty — his voyage of 1498'. The most remarkable aspect of the north-eastern coast on La Cosa is that it is marked by place names and a line of five English flags. These are the map-maker's flags, but some suggest that they are places where Cabot, like Gilbert at St. John's in 1583, and Cartier at Gaspé in 1534, claimed the land for the Crown. At one place, La Cosa locates 'Cauo de ynglaterra' (Cape of England) and over the sea he writes 'mar de descubierta por inglese' (sea discovered by the English).

Mappa Mundi by Juan de la Cosa, ca. 1500
Detail from Mappa Mundi by Juan de la Cosa, ca. 1500
(Compass rose modified)
La Cosa, a Spanish Basque pilot and cosmographer, drew this map shortly after 1500. As owner of the Santa Maria, the vessel that Chrisopher Columbus took to America in 1492, la Cosa accompanied Columbus on his first two voyages. He then continued to survey the American coast until 1504.

Although la Cosa's map also illustrates the Old World, the section here shows only the New World, which was drawn on a larger scale. La Cosa's map included the most up to date information concerning Spanish discoveries in the West Indies and South America.

Alongside the large landmass - which is believed to represent the North American coast - are five English royal standards and the caption 'mar descubierta por inglese' ('sea discovered by the English'). Although evidence is lacking, some scholars think these legends refer either to John Cabot's voyages or to a later Bristol-Portuguese expedition. Parallel to these standards are 12 names along the western portion of the map which are not identifiable and do not appear on any later maps.

This map is probably a copy of la Cosa's original map because some of the place names have been corrupted. Although the American half of this 'Mappemonde,' or world map, is dated 1500, it was probably constructed sometime after 1505.
From W. P. Cumming, R. A. Skelton and D. B. Quinn, The Discovery of North America (Montreal: McClelland and Stewart Limited, ©1971) 36. Courtesy of Museo Naval de Madrid, Madrid.

Where is this coast, was it straight, and did it appear to Cabot to lie east-west? There is a range of answers in the literature. It has been identified as the north shore of the St. Lawrence, the south coast of Newfoundland from Cape Race westwards (including Cape Breton Island), and as the coast from Cape Breton to the Bay of Fundy. Still others thought that what was mapped east-west should really have been north-south, so that the line of flags stretched from Cape Chidley (near Hudson Strait), either to Cape Race or to Cape Breton. All these interpretations differ markedly from that of Jackson (1963).

William Ganong (1864-1941), the great New Brunswick cartographic scholar, analyzed the La Cosa map. He assumed that the flagged area was constructed from Cabot information, and might be a simplification of Cabot's own map, the result of successive re-drawings. He also thought that it was made with compasses corrected for the very different declination in Europe, the effect of which was to throw our coasts out of line. He concluded that the named coast was more consistent with Cape Race to Cape Breton than with any other interpretation.

Landed at Cape Breton

Ganong thought that Cabot missed Newfoundland on the outward voyage, made a landfall on Cape Breton, and then returned along Newfoundland's south coast. Between the third and fourth flags is written 'Cauo Descubierto' ([the] cape [that was] discovered); to Ganong, this had to be the landfall. The cape to the east is (in translation) 'the Cape of St. George', while to the west is the 'mar descubierta por iglese'(sea discovered by the English). The islands shown beneath this phrase could be the way the mosaic of islands, peninsulas and broken country at the eastern end of Cape Breton Island looked from the sea. The fourth flag, Ganong thought, might mark the landing and the erection of marks of English possession at Louisbourg, a place called (in either English or French) 'English Harbour' until the early 18th century. Was it here, then, that Cabot erected his large cross with a banner of England and one of St. Mark'?

Ganong suggested that the 'bight' between flags three and four represented the great entrance to the Gulf of St. Lawrence (called Cabot Strait only since 1888). Both he and G.R.F. Prowse, a Newfoundlander, considered that the La Cosa's reference to 'Co. de s:Jorge' survived as 'Cape St. George', projecting into the Gulf on the Port au Port Peninsula of western Newfoundland, and could be the oldest authenticated place name of European origin not only in Newfoundland, but also in the entire North American continent. By this interpretation, then, after examining the Cape Breton coast, Cabot crossed to Newfoundland, mistaking the Gulf of St. Lawrence for a great bight of the coast with shore hidden by mist or distance (precisely as did Cartier 37 years later). Alternatively, Cabot might have thought the Gulf to be open sea, in which case, we have a good explanation why he described the discovery as 'two new very large and fertile islands'.

Coasts Along Southern Newfoundland

Ganong then took Cabot along the southern coast of Newfoundland, the flags and place names marking Cape Ray, the Burgeo area ('Pisques'), where Cabot found the fishery so abundant, Bear Head ('Co de Lisarte'), Cape La Hune ('Forte'), Hermitage Bay or Bay d'Espoir ('Ro.Longo'), St. Pierre and Miquelon ('lsla de la Trendar'), and the tip of the Burin Peninsula ('C. Fastanatre') where, also, the fifth flag records Cauo de ynglaterra ('Cape of England').

The Routes Proposed by Ganong and Quinn
The Routes Proposed by Ganong and Quinn
Illustration by Duleepa Wijayawardhana, 1997.

This cape is the closest to England on the La Cosa map. What, then, is the prominent island off the east coast? This, wrote Ganong, was the way the southern tip of the Avalon might appear through the mists as Cabot tracked across Placentia Bay. In going over the same evidence, this is also how Leslie Harris interpreted it (Harris, 1967). Indeed, Pasqualigo's statement that on the way back he saw two islands' would fit well as, perhaps, the fog closed in on the Matthew about Trepassey Bay. Short of provisions, Cabot would continue eastward, for home.

By Ganong's reconstruction, then, Cabot was unlikely to have seen any part of Newfoundland north of Cape St. George in the west and Cape Race in the east. A similar path was followed by D.B. Quinn, but he suggested a course from Cape Breton stretched out to reach Cape Bauld (Quinn, 1977), a place where many scholars bring Cabot in from the Atlantic on his outward voyage (Harrisse, 1896; Morison, 1971).

Sebastian Cabot Map

The Cape Breton landfall may also be supported by the so-called 'Sebastian Cabot' or 'Paris' map of 1544, found in Germany in 1856. The map is printed with Spanish legends, which apparently contain Sebastian Cabot's personal information (Skelton, in Williamson, 1962). They indicate that the landfall was made on 24 June and that an adjacent island was named St. John. They add that the discovery was made by John Cabot and his son Sebastian, and ascribe the authorship of the map to Sebastian. The position of the words Prima Tierra Vista indicates that Cape North, Cape Breton, was the approximate locality of the land first seen. The date of the landfall is corroborated by Toby's Chronicle of Bristol, but the map's reliability in other respects has been questioned (Williamson, 1962).

Sebastian Cabot's World map, ca. 1544
Sebastian Cabot's World map, ca. 1544
From Henry Harrisse, Découverte et évolution cartographique de Terre Neuve et des pays circonvoisins 1497-1501-1769: essais de géographie historique et documentaire (London: Henry Stevens, Son & Stiles, 1900), following page 206. Colorized by Duleepa Wijayawardhana.

However, nearly all the proponents of a Cape Breton landfall - Markham, Tarducci, Thwaites, Bourinot, Dawson, Harvey, Biggar, Ganong, Burpee - regarded both the La Cosa and Sebastian Cabot/Paris maps as documentary evidence which supported their case. Even if the map is discounted, a case can still be made for a southern landfall, and the Day letter seems to have made little difference. Williamson, who wrote both before and after it was found, opted for Cape Breton in 1929 and for Maine (cautiously) in 1962, which is also favoured by Quinn (1993); and Vigneras, who found the Day letter, also argued for Cape Breton (Vigneras, 1957).

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